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Below the (Color) Line

Illustration by Bill Smith

Diversity is more than a by-the-numbers proposition, but when it comes to black employment in the motion-picture industry, here are the latest statistics:

After enjoying a 77 percent increase between 1991 and 1997, minority writers in the Writers Guild of America still account for just under 5 percent of writers employed in the feature-film industry.

Roles for black actors dropped from 14.1 percent of all Screen Actors Guild jobs in 1997 to 13.4 percent in 1998. It’s the largest drop among the guild’s ethnic-minority groups, all of which, except for Asian/Pacific Islanders, experienced declines.

The Directors Guild of America’s annual employment report for 1998 found that African-American directors accounted for 4.2 percent of film directors, up from 3.4 percent in 1997; overall, the percentage of days worked by black members remained static at 4.4 percent.

With modest gains here and worrying declines there, the studies carried out by the three major Hollywood guilds present a mixed picture when it comes to black employment in the film industry. It’s a picture, however, that comes into even sharper relief when you look at the Motion Picture Association of America’s most recent study of the industry as a whole. While job growth at the production level has slowed in recent years, according to the MPAA the number of jobs in the service sector has increased a whopping 80 percent between 1990 and 1999. Clearly, however, this rising tide has not been lifting all boats proportionately.

The reasons are complex, and the numbers don’t tell the whole story. Indeed, the state of black employment in Hollywood looks worse than even these grim statistics. A recent request put in to the national office of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) in New York for information on its black below-the-line membership was redirected to individual locals in Los Angeles. Subsequent calls to the cinematographers, Local 600; the art directors, Local 876; the Motion Picture Studio Grips, Local 80; and the Motion Picture Editors Guild, Local 700, found that none of the guilds — whose combined membership is over 10,000 — has ever conducted a study to determine diversity in its rank and file.

For Sandra Evers-Manly, former president of the Hollywood NAACP and current director of the Black Hollywood Education and Resource Center, the lack of data comes as no surprise. “They just don’t keep those numbers,” says Evers-Manly, whose organization is currently compiling a directory of black film personnel. “And you won’t find those numbers in the executive ranks, either. I’ve looked for them. When I first got involved in this industry as an activist 10 years ago, I was curious about hiring trends, but you can still only get that information by word of mouth.”

In acknowledging their inability to account for the number of blacks in their respective locals, at least two union executive directors, speaking off the record, agreed that black employment and diversity in general were important. Neither, however, could say why the locals had not conducted studies such as the DGA’s. Tracking member diversity is particularly crucial for IATSE unions, says Evers-Manly, given the perception and reality of the IATSE’s long history of cronyism and exclusionary eligibility rules, those Catch-22 requirements that pin entry into the union on the number of union days worked. “When you’re not keeping the data, and everybody should,” she says, “there’s no way to show that you’re providing equal opportunity or access.”

At the same time, says one union executive director, the current strike and the ongoing concern over runaway production have created an unstable environment not readily conducive to systemic reform. “It isn’t just a question of whether there’s affirmative action in the industry,” he says. “Right now, it’s a question of whether we’re even going to have an industry in the future.”

Over the last decade, some unions have attempted to open their ranks. Perhaps more as a response to the boom in independent film than for diversity’s sake, these unions have made changes to their bylaws — for instance, allowing nonunion days to count toward membership. Even so, for many blacks working on set and behind the camera, little has changed since People magazine brought national mainstream attention to the lack of African-Americans working below the line with its 1996 cover story “Hollywood Blackout.”

“I think those are great things,” says cinematographer Bill Dill — who is not a union member by choice — about Local 600’s more relaxed eligibility requirements. But asked if he thinks they’ve made a difference, he answers flatly, “No.

“When I work with a white crew,” says Dill, whose credits include B.A.P.S., The Five Heartbeats and the upcoming Dancing in September, “I know that I’m the only black cinematographer they’ve ever seen on a set. I’m still a rarity. We still work in the most segregated business in America.”

The problem extends beyond the unions to the perceptions and attitudes of those who make the initial hiring decisions. Dill insists that despite the lack of diversity in Hollywood, he enters every situation with expectations of good will, believing that talent will out. Still, he tells the recent story of the director — someone he knew and who admired his work — who nevertheless told Dill that he wouldn’t be right for an upcoming feature. “Somehow, it was a disqualifying factor for me that they had a fair-skinned white actress,” says Dill. “It’s a white business. I’ve shot more white people in my career than black. But the first thing you’ll see happen is people looking for a rationalization for why it’s okay to discriminate.”

The story is not much different after the postproduction crews take over, says Earl Watson, the editor on House Party, Boomerang and The Ladies Man, to name only a few titles from a career that began in 1973. “There aren’t that many editors who are black in Hollywood, maybe three or four that I know of,” says Watson, who adds that he didn’t meet his first black director until 1989, when Reginald Hudlin hired him for House Party. “It was a struggle up until that point, and after I met the Hudlin brothers everything changed.” Since then, Watson has worked frequently for the Hudlins and other black directors, becoming what he describes as “a medium fish in a small pond. If I was to try and compete for a white film, I would suddenly be a very small fish in a huge pond,” he says. “I could compete, but I’m not being given the opportunity.” Guardedly he adds, “I would hate to put words on the prevailing attitude, but I’m sure there’s still a level of racism in the industry.”

“There is not a great desire to employ African-American people per se or people of color in general, because there is no perceived value in doing that except for those who feel that diversity is an important social concern,” says Paris Barclay, two-time Emmy winner and co-chair of the DGA’s African-American Steering Committee. “Part of what the Steering Committee has been trying to point out is that shows that have the most diverse staff of directors tend to be the most successful. Isn’t it funny that 40 percent of the directors on ER are people of color or women, or that NYPD Blue has an enormously diverse cast and crew? In the feature-film world, the evidence is even stronger.”

Despite the numbers cited in the DGA’s 1998 report, Barclay is cautiously optimistic that the numbers will be higher for 1999 when they’re released later this month. His optimism is in part the result of efforts the Steering Committee has made in the last year to bring television executives and black talent together for a series of informal meet-and-greet mixers. (Similar events with studio executives are currently in the works.) “It’s all about trying to get people into the same room,” says Barclay. “Then hopefully some of the fear will go away, that we’re so very different and somehow we’re going to drop Jheri curl all over their lunch. I don’t know what they’re so afraid of. It surprises me and it doesn’t that we still have to do this.”

Ultimately, old-fashioned networking remains the best strategy for black filmmakers, Barclay says, advice that is shared by Evers-Manly, Dill and Watson. “If you’re below the line or you’re in a DGA category that’s not director,” says Barclay, “you better network your ass off. You better find some friends who are going places in your community and get associated with them. If you were working with F. Gary Gray in music videos, you’re working today. He got successful and brought a lot of people with him, as have others. You should be at every event where you know these people. You need to be relentless.”


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